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Contemporary Arab Artists from the Middle East
A Sky so Close
Betool Khedairi
Intifada, Islam, desert, identity, remembrance, violence
Picture Gallery
Writing as an autobiography of the soul
Is writing an adequate alternative to despair?

Procreation and Ambivalence
The Jordanian Desert
Bedouin, satellite dishes and mirrors of stone

Paths through Literature and Exile
Thoughts on Music from the Orient
Imagining a Different Future
A Diary of Disorientation: Part 1
A Diary of Disorientation: Part 2
Betool Khedairi
In her coming-of-age novel "A Sky So Close", published in Beirut in 1999, Betool Khedairi (born in 1965 in Iraq) narrates the story of a young girl living in relative comfort with her Iraqi father and English mother in a town south of Baghdad. The girl becomes unavoidably drawn into the conflict between her parents and, against her mother’s wishes, becomes friends with Khadduja, the daughter of a poor Iraqi farmer’s family living nearby...

The grown-ups ask me: “How old are you?”
I hold out the fingers of my left hand and my right index finger. I bring my hands together. “Six.”
I count them again to make sure I’ve got it right, then I always say: “Khaddouja is also six.”
“Who’s Khaddouja?”
“She lives near our farmhouse. She doesn’t go to school because she has no shoes.”
I believed then that children who didn’t have shoes didn’t go to school.
In that vast expanse everything was bigger than me. Even the way you looked at me, across the breakfast table, when I called my mother “Mummy” instead of calling her “Youm” or “Youmma” in the Arabic way. I only felt I was my true size when I was with Khadija; this person was the only creature in the world who made me feel that there was something, or someone, as small as me. I made her even smaller. I called her Khaddouja—“Little Khadija”.
She was my world. She was everything that came in the second half of a day. A world that spread between our farmhouse and her father’s hut, by the banks of the Tigris River, in our little village twenty miles south of Bagdad. Zafraniya, it was called—“Land of Saffron.” (…)
My mother was relaxing on the black sofa in her room. She was wearing a black dress. The whiteness of her skin stood out. It was as though her face, arms, and legs were made of porcelain. She looked like an imported Chinese miming puppet. A rag doll strewn on the sofa. She was listening to the BBC World Service. A fashion magazine and a booklet about slimming lay by her side.
On the low table where she has propped up her feet is a small bowl filled with hazelnuts and a musical cigarette box. Every time she opened it, it played a tune. How I hated that tune! What you hated was the fact that she smoked. You thought it was improper for women to smoke. So you chose a separate bedroom, at the other end of the corridor, to get away from her clouds of smoke. She leans over to pick up one of those small colored bottles with the unusual tops. She will varnish her fingernails when she has finished trimming and tidying them. The nail file, tweezers, and scissors are in her lap. She hardly notices me entering.
I greet her: “Hello, Mummy.”
She answers me in an English as white as her skin:
“Hello. Where have you been?”
She’s expecting my reply.
“Outside, in the farm.”
As usual, she flies into a rage. The bowl of hazelnuts gets knocked over as she leaps up. “You mean you were with the dirty little girl again. Didn’t I warn you not to mix with that lice-ridden child?”
“But Mummy, she’s my friend.”
She scolds:
“No! She’s not your friend, she will only give you her diseases.”
She starts to pick up the scattered hazelnuts, then asks:
“Did you eat anything when you were with her?”
I answer in a low voice:
“Only a small piece of bread with some cheese.”
She erupts again:
“My God! Haven’t you seen how your mother uses dried cow dung for the fire with which she bakes the bread? Haven’t you seen the hordes of flies that swarm around that cheese they make with their filthy hands?”
I try to object: “But Mummy...”
Interrupting me, she raises her index finger, holding it up rigid and still: “I’ll speak to your father when he gets back. I’ll make him stop you from going to the farm again.”
I realized that I was going to be the cause of their next argument, but then, most days of the week seemed to be just another installment in a never-ending argument!
My mother has toast with jam and butter. You chew on a small piece of brown khubuz—our local round, unleavened bread. You are waiting for one of the peasant farmers to bring over the thickened cream they make. She never allows me to have any, because of what she calls “those strange black spots” on its surface. I hold my breath as I watch my hand movements. As you lift your cup of tea, she lowers her cup of instant coffee. You put on your glasses and frown as you peer at the little black and white television, which is silent. A local comedy, Under the Barber’s Shaving Blade, plays out soundlessly. The repairman couldn’t make the barber’s assistant, Abossi, speak. My mother lowers the copy of the Times. It’s several days old, but she has only just received it. Finally, the phone rings, the tension is shattered. After a little while I make my escape, heading out toward Khaddouja.
Today is a holiday. We’ll go to the very edge of the farm, where the barbed-wire fence surrounds it. Inside it is another fence of thick weeds with thorny ends. There’s no avoiding their sting. We cut our fingers and knees on their blades as sharp as razors. Khaddouja had set up a swing for us between two palm trees. Her older brother Hatem tied the seat—a basket which Khaddouja’s mother had woven out of dried palm fronds—to the trunks of two adjacent palm trees with a heavy rope. We take turns; Khaddouja lets out several hoarse cries of joy as she clambers onto the flimsy seat. She clings tight to its edge and wobbles on our primitive plaything. Then it’s my turn. I kick the air with my feet … I rise upward … I kick harder … I’m framed in the milky blue. All the palm trees are below my two bare feet … the sun is swimming in the waters of the river. I spread out my toes … pencils of light pass through the four gaps between them. With my other foot I kick even harder … I rise higher toward the heavens … I breathe in the horizon … then… A sky so close!

From the Arabic by Muhayman Jamil

Reprint by kind permission of Betool Khedairi

Author: Betool Khedairi